|2/5/2014 2:39:00 PM|
Eye on Augusta: Two Virtual Schools Move Forward, Early Voting Fails
|Early Voting Bill (LD 156)— Midcoast legislators|
|House (92 Yeas, 56 Nays)|
Joe Brooks (U-Winterport) N
Michael Devin (D-Newcastle) Y
Lizzie Dickerson (D-Rockland) Y
Jeff Evangelos (U-Friendship) Y
James Gillway (R-Searsport) N
Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) Y
Brian Jones (D-Freedom) Y
Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston) Y
Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) Y
Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay) Y
Tim Marks (D-Pittston) Y
Jethro Pease (R-Morrill) N
Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) N
Joan Welsh (D-Rockport) Y
Ellen Winchenbach (R-Waldoboro) N
Senate (24 Yeas, 11 Nays):
Ed Mazurek (D-Knox Cty) Y
Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln Cty) Y
Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty) N
U= unenrolled, X = absent
This week the Maine Charter School Commission held public hearings for two so-called "virtual schools" after voting unanimously to advance the applications of Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy.
In 2011, Maine became the 41st state in the country to allow charter schools, which are privately managed, but publicly funded, educational institutions. A new Maine Charter School Commission was created to authorize up to 10 independent public charter schools throughout the state during the first 10 years of Maine's charter school law. So far, five have been approved. Maine Virtual Academy would be operated by virtual school corporation K12 Inc. of Herndon, Virginia, while Maine Connections Academy would be operated by Maryland-based Connections Learning.
Unlike brick-and-mortar charter schools, virtual schools are for-profit, Internet-based education platforms that allow homeschooled students to attend classes from their home computers without setting foot in a classroom. Governor Paul LePage and other charter school advocates argue that virtual schools provide a choice for parents to meet their child's specific needs in a space free from the rigidness of the public education system. Opponents of virtual schools, including teachers unions and many Democrats, cite several studies that have found virtual schools lack accountability, quality and transparency (see: Free Press 7/3/203, "A Virtual Impasse in Augusta on Charter Schools").
Unlike with conventional charter schools, students are not hindered by geographic barriers to attend virtual schools and could feasibly draw tuition money away from any district in the state. Also contrary to brick-and-mortar charter schools, under Maine law virtual schools are able to make profits for shareholders and spend a substantial amount of profits on political lobbying and advertising. Virginia-based virtual school corporation K12 Inc. spent $26.5 million on advertising in 2010, according to an analysis prepared for The New York Times by Kantar Media. In 2010, K12 Inc. donated $19,000 to a political action committee that supported Governor LePage's candidacy. Both virtual school companies with applications under review were the subject of a 2012 Polk Award-winning investigation by Portland Press Herald reporter Colin Woodard which documented the influence wealthy corporations have exerted in expanding digital education in Maine.
Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy have been rejected by the Maine Charter School Commission in previous rounds of applications over concerns that the two schools would not be independent from the education companies that provide the online platforms. But according to commission members, those concerns have been addressed.
However, a bill presented by former Education Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) could pose a threat to the future of virtual schools in Maine. Presented at a public hearing on Tuesday, February 4, LD 1736 would establish a state-run virtual academy that would provide online classes to all students in the state. The bill would also put a moratorium on the authorization of virtual charter schools until after the virtual academy administered by the state is operational.
Speaking against the bill on behalf of the far-right organization Americans for Prosperity, former Waldo County Senator Carol Weston praised the process of the new Charter School Commission and argued that if the bill passes, it would "slam the door" on future virtual school students.
"I think the more school choice students and families have, the more we as a society will benefit from the better education that will be supplied," said Weston, who is also on the board of Maine Connections Academy.
She said if the virtual schools are approved by MCSC, students could begin attending them as early as September.
The Commission will vote at a March 4 meeting on whether to enter into contract negotiations with each of the proposed virtual schools or deny the application. Written public comment on any of the applications can be sent to email@example.com.
Early Voting Fails to Gain Enough Support
A proposed amendment to the Maine Constitution to allow for early voting in the days prior to an election received majority support on a vote of 92-56, and in the Senate 24-11, but failed to garner the two-thirds vote in the Legislature necessary to go out to a voter referendum. Rep. Mike Shaw (D-Standish), the sponsor of LD 156, argued that expanding opportunities to vote would bolster the democratic process.
"There's nothing more democratic than voting. We should make it easier for citizens to do it," said Shaw in a prepared statement. "Getting to the polls during particular hours on a specific day can be a challenge for working families, seniors and Mainers without reliable transportation. We want them all to exercise their right to vote."
Currently, registered voters can vote absentee, which accounts for 60 percent of votes cast in Maine. But unlike absentee voting, which entails casting a ballot in the presence of a municipal clerk that is then sealed and set aside until on or near election day, early voting allows voters to cast anonymous ballots at the voting location as they would normally do on election day.
Republicans strongly opposed the measure.
"This is part of a broader liberal war on our sacred voting rights and traditions that is being waged for no other reason than to make it easier for Democratic political groups to turn out their supporters," said House Republican Leader Ken Fredette (Newport) in a statement. "This proposal would do away with the very idea of an election day."
Republicans argued that the proposed constitutional amendment did not specify how many days before election day voters could cast a vote and that voters wouldn't have the time to make an informed decision if they voted too early. They also said expanded early voting could "create a system of unfairness between Maine's urban centers and rural towns," as rural areas, which have higher numbers of registered Republicans, might not have the resources of larger cities and towns.
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